Artist Lutz Bacher, whose work on violence, intimacy and memory has stood up to categorization, is dead –

Bacher in 2018.


BDue to the exciting and multifaceted nature of his art and his general reluctance to explain it, Lutz Bacher has long been one of those rare artists who escapes simple and easy summation. Such figures should be discussed in anecdotes. There was a time when Bacher covered the floor and courtyard of a gallery with sand, the time when she had illustrations of Playboy repainted, and the time she filmed one of her dealers at work for months.

Over the course of more than 40 years, Bacher has produced works in all mediums, from rambling collages to sprawling sculptures, while tackling – in poetic, ironic and tonic fashions – subjects like political terror, male violence, not fixed nature of identity and the slippage of memory. She was, in other words, an essential artist for America today. His death on Tuesday of a heart attack in New York City puts an end to one of the great, strange and original artistic races of the last half century.

Bacher – whose name is a pseudonym she adopted in the 1970s – was selective about the biographical information she shared, but some facts are known. She was born in 1943, which makes her 75 or 76 years old. She was long based in Berkeley, Calif., And moved to New York in 2012. She was married for more than four decades to Donald C. Backer, a radio astronomer and professor, according to the Buchholz Gallery, which represented her in Germany. (Greene Naftali represented her in New York), and she is survived by her son, David A. Backer; his daughter-in-law, Una Grewal; his granddaughter, Annika Backer; her sister, Jo-Anna Lutz Jones; and his brother, Patrick B. Lutz.

Much has been said about Bacher’s elusiveness – the fleeting mystery she cultivated – but even when her art is enigmatic or restrained, it regularly focuses on visceral issues like desire and danger, sadness and rage.

Sound 1975 Men at war the photographs come from an image she found of sailors relaxing on a beach during the Vietnam War, cropped and cropped in such a way as to bring out the intimacy and homoeroticism between young men trained to kill. Interview with Lee Harvey Oswald (1976) is a series of collages composed of photocopied images of the assassin and an interview she did with herself about him.

Copies and borrowings proliferate in Bacher’s work, often with the aim of probing the vulgarity of popular culture and its dissolution of private space, both physical and psychic. Her “Jokes” series, which she started in 1987, combines images of celebrities (Jane Fonda, Henry Kissinger) with sordid and threatening jokes. Playboy. His photo work Jackie and I (1989) takes the photos of Jackie Kennedy Onassis from paparazzi Ron Galella in Central Park, and adds captions in her voice.

Bacher also approached his own immediate surroundings with a tendril eye and an emphasis on how history is written and remembered. Olympiad (1997) is a video tour of the 1936 Olympic Stadium in Berlin filmed on aged tape, the image sliding in and out of readability. From October 1997 to July 1998, she filmed her dealer Pat Hearn at work in her Chelsea office, then edited some 1,200 hours of footage into a 40-minute piece that became a tribute to the legendary gallery owner when she died in 2000 at the age of 45.

While taking up topical subjects and techniques ranging from the appropriation and criticism of institutions to surveillance and the male gaze at various points in his career, Bacher has never been able to be easily slipped into a category or a movement. At the same time as she was screening paintings by Vargas, for example, she was also making a work like Big boy (1992), a plush, enlarged version of the anatomically correct kind of doll that could be used to identify child abuse.

Unsurprisingly, such hectic experimentation made Bacher a sort of “artist-artist” for much of his life. But his profile has grown steadily, and the past decade has seen a number of key releases, most notably exhibitions at MoMA PS1, in 2009; the Kunsthalle in Zurich, the Institute of Contemporary Art, London, and Portikus in Frankfurt, in 2013; and Secession in Vienna in 2016, a show for which she placed huge, worn-out tubes on the floor.

In 2012, Bacher appeared at the Whitney Biennial, scattering hundreds of old baseballs in a space that had been used for a series of performances – melancholy traces of movement and touch, of expended energy. A blank video projection changed from black to white, accompanied by an excerpt from the soundtrack of The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988) while two lovers talk. “What are you thinking about?” we say. The other responds: “I think how happy I am.”

This piece remains one of the most beautiful works of art I have ever seen, a peculiar and wacky mix of specific and abstract, intimate (a couple in private) and vast (all the action including these bullets were part). Bacher was a master of these surprising creations. In his hands, ingenious ideas, stripped down, executed with panache, give disproportionate results.

A photo of soldiers, manipulated by Bacher, leads to an exegesis on camaraderie, war and sexuality. Hours and hours of impassive, distilled images become a documentary portrait, a story, a memorial. And a name adopted, committed a lifetime, comes to represent another way of being in the world.

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